Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No Jury Finding on Drug Weight Doesn't Undermine Guilty Verdict

US v. Reid: Reid and his co-defendants were charged with (among other things), conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack and murder. Reid acted as a sort of middle man, purchasing powder cocaine for conversion into crack as well as amounts of crack that were then sold to street-level dealers. After being arrested on state charges, Reid told co-defendants he thought he was set up by an informant, who was eventually murdered. Reid's role in the actual killing was to provide transportation and disposal of the murder weapon. At trial, Reid was convicted, but on the crack count the jury did not return a verdict indicated the specific amount of crack involved. He was sentenced to 240 months in prison on the conspiracy charge and life on the murder charge.

On appeal, Reid argued (via plain error) that the district court's instructions left the jury with three options: convict of conspiracy involving more than 50 grams of crack, convict of more than 5 but less than 50 grams of crack, or acquit. The Fourth Circuit agreed, in a strange way, holding that the district court did indeed err in its instructions to the jury, but only because it tied the crack amounts to a "guilty" verdict in the first place. As the Fourth explains:

in order to obtain a conviction on Count 1, the government was required to prove that (1) an agreement to possess cocaine with intent to distribute existed between two or more persons; (2) Reid knew of the conspiracy; and (3) Reid knowingly and voluntarily became a part of this conspiracy. In instructing the jury that a specific drug quantity was an element of conviction under § 841(a), the district court misstated the law and heightened the government’s burden of proof.

(citation omitted). So there was error and it was plain, but Reid could not show prejudice because the sentence he received on that count (240 months) was the maximum allowed for a conviction without regard to a specific amount of crack. The court also rejected Reid's sufficiency challenge to his convictions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Double Jeopardy No Bar to Arson, Mail Fraud, and Use of Fire Convictions

US v. Martin: Martin was the owner of an unsuccessful convenience store in Virginia. She was deep in debt, both the creditors and the commonwealth, and failed when she tried to sell the business. Unfortunately, at that point, she told others that she would "torch" the store "if she had the guts" and that "it's not going to be long and I'm not going to have to worry about any of it anyway." Ultimately, the store burned down. After collecting insurance proceeds for the fire, Martin was charged with staging the whole thing for her benefit. Specifically, she was charged with arson, using fire to commit another felony, mail fraud, and making false statements. She was convicted by a jury on all charges.

On appeal, Martin raised two arguments. First, she argued that the evidence was insufficient to sustain convictions for arson and use of fire. The Fourth Circuit rejected that argument, noting that while there was no direct evidence linking Martin to the fire, there was sufficient circumstantial evidence (motive, she was the last person in the building, lying to investigators) for a reasonable jury to conclude that she was guilty. Second, martin argued that her simultaneous convictions for arson, use of fire, and mail fraud violated the Double Jeopardy clause. Again, the Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that separate sentence for use of fire was clearly meant to apply as punishment in addition to the underlying crime (mail fraud, in this case) and that arson and use of fire are separate offenses when analyzed under the Blockburger test.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Civil Arrest Does Not Start Speed Trial Clock

US v. Rodriguez-Amaya: Rodriguez-Amaya was deported in 1998 to El Salvador following a conviction in Virginia for sexual assault. He returned to the United States without permission and was arrested by ICE on May 17, 2005. On June 6, 2005, Rodriguez-Amaya's custody was transferred from ICE to Virginia, which sought to prosecute him for failure to register as a sex offender. While in Virginia custody, a federal criminal warrant charging Rodriguez-Amaya with illegal reentry was obtained on July 21, 2005. Rodriguez-Amaya was returned to ICE custody on October 7, 2005. It was not until October 27, 2005, that the outstanding criminal warrant was executed and Rodriguez-Amaya was transferred to the USMS. On November 23, 2005, Rodriguez-Amaya was indicted. Prior to trial, he moved to dismiss the indictment under the Speed Trial Act due to the delay from being returned to ICE custody on October 7 to indictment on November 23. The district court denied the motion, convicted Rodriguez-Amaya, and sentenced him to 41 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Rodriguez-Amaya's motion. The court held that the Speedy Trial Act clock did not start running until the federal criminal warrant was executed on October 27. The court followed the lead of other Circuits and concluded that the civil detention, as in this case by ICE, does not trigger the running of the STA clock. However, the court also held that there is a "ruse exception" to that rule, which applies when "the 'primary or exclusive purpose of the civil detention was to hold [a defendant] for future criminal prosecution.'" The court had "little trouble" concluding that there was no evidence of such shenanigans in this case.

Court Defines "Abuse" in Sex Offnse/Immigration Context

US v. Diaz-Ibarra: Diaz-Ibarra was deported in 1995 following his conviction in Georgia for committing an "immoral or indecent act to or in the presence of a" minor. After returning to the United States without permission, Diaz-Ibarra pleaded guilty to illegal reentry following an aggravated felony. At sentencing, the probation officer recommended that Diaz-Ibarra's sentence be increased 16 levels because his Georgia conviction constituted a crime of violence under USSG 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). The district court overruled Diaz-Ibarra's objection and applied the enhancement, sentencing him to 78 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that Diaz-Ibarra's prior conviction was a crime of violence. Specifically, "crime of violence" in 2L1.2 is defined as including "sexual abuse of a minor." Diaz-Ibarra conceded that his offense was "sexual" and involved a minor, but argued but it was not "abuse." Applying a definition of abuse that goes well beyond the common sense one, the court concluded that "abuse" included situations where there is no physical contact between the assailant and minor where the assailant intends to gratify himself sexually, regardless of the effect on the victim. Given that definition, Diaz-Ibarra's Georgia conviction constituted sexual abuse of a minor and, thus, a crime of violence.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Supreme Court's Decision in Lopez Applies at Sentencing

US v. Matamoros-Modesta: Matamoros-Modesta pleaded guilty to illegal reentry. At sentencing, it was determined that he had previously been deported following an "aggravated felony" conviction, in Texas, for possession of cocaine. As a result, his offense level doubled and he was sentenced to 37 months in prison. Between plea and sentencing, the Supreme Court decided Lopez v. Gonzales, 127 S.Ct. 625 (2006), in which the Court held that, in the immigration context, a prior conviction for a drug offense that was a felony offense under state law but not the Controlled Substances Act was not an "aggravated felony." But nobody noticed, so the aggravated sentence was imposed.

On appeal, the Government and defense agreed that the district court plainly erred by imposing the enhanced sentence. The Fourth Circuit agreed, as well, following the lead of numerous other courts in importing Lopez's holding into the sentencing process. It therefore vacated Matamoros-Modesta's sentence and remanded for resentencing.

Congrats to the WDNC FPD office on the win!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Failure to Inform Defendant of Possible ACCA Impact Requires Vacation of Guilty Plea

US v. Hairston: Hairston was charged with 31 separate offenses, including 14 felon-in-possession charges and 8 924(c) charges. He entered into a plea agreement by which he pleaded guilty to two of the 924(c) charges, with the other six dismissed, and all the other offenses. The parties agreed that with the application of the 924(c) mandatory sentences, he was subject to a term of at least 30 years in prison. However, prior to sentencing it was discovered that Hairston qualified as an Armed Career Criminal, which subjected him to a term of at least 45 years in prison (30 years on the 924(c) charges plus 15 for any of the felon-in-possession charges). At sentencing, the Government admitted that the parties "overlooked" the possibility of the ACCA applying. Hairston himself objected to a 45-year sentence and asked to withdraw his plea. The district court denied the motion, noting that Hairston was never promised he would only receive a 30-year sentence and that his Guideline range on the various offenses, without taking the ACCA into account, was 168-210 months. Therefore, any confusion about the potential sentence was "not significant."

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded. Hairston argued that the district court failed in not notifying him at the plea hearing that he could be subject to a 15-year term on the felon-in-possession charges. The Government conceded the error. The Fourth Circuit agreed, noting that while Rule 11 does not require courts to inform defendants of what Guideline range they might face, it does require notification of any applicable statutory ranges. Furthermore, the error was not harmless. Without the ACCA enhancement, the district court could have imposed a minimal non-Guideline sentence on the counts without mandatory minimum sentences, effectively sentencing Hairston to only(!) 30 years in prison. For a remedy, the Fourth Circuit vacated Hairston's guilty plea with respect to all counts, not just the felon-in-possession counts, as requested by the Government.